Woody Allen (liberal) and Natan Sharansky (conservative) are celebrity Jewish intellectuals who offer radically different worldviews for your contemplation. Allen's is more popular with intellectuals worldwide. Sharansky's whole life says that Allen is wrong. Allen recently explained his view of history to the German magazine Der Spiegel. And Sharansky was interviewed by Jay Nordlinger of the National Review. If you understand their disagreement, you will grasp the main spiritual question facing Americans today.
Allen, 69, is a filmmaker from Brooklyn. Sharansky, 57, was a political prisoner in the Soviet gulag; today he is an Israeli politician.
Allen got famous as the anti-hero of his own movies, the schnook who invites the world to laugh at him while he gets the girl anyway. He has become the master comedian of the age, so funny he hasn't found it necessary to make a joke in 30 years. During this time his movies have dispensed with mere humor in favor of gentle, carefully-crafted tedium. He is especially popular in Europe, where people enjoy well-written films, prefer literate irony to childish comedy, and never object to a Jew making a fool of himself.
"The history of the world," he told Der Spiegel, "is like: He kills me, I kill him." (Of course he was speaking casually, off the cuff.) "Only with different cosmetics and different castings: So in 2001, some fanatics killed some Americans, and now some Americans are killing some Iraqis. And in my childhood, some Nazis killed Jews. And now, some Jewish people and some Palestinians are killing each other. Political questions, if you go back thousands of years, are ephemeral, not important. History is the same thing over and over again."
If history is merely a bad movie endlessly repeating itself, then history is meaningless. If all killing amounts to the same thing, you can't possibly save the world by fighting wars. Allen doesn't say these things but plainly implies them
These ideas are important: Americans must decide whether they are fools to fight for other people's freedom. The Iraq war was partly inspired by none other than Natan Sharansky -- who passionately preaches that free people must battle tyranny militarily. Referring to Sharansky's "The Case for Democracy," President Bush said: "If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky's book."
But Allen's theory implies that we are crazy to fight in Iraq. True, Saddam Hussein and his rape rooms and torture shops and killing grounds have been washed away like gore off a butcher-shop floor; all the same, history is going nowhere. Whether you kill a man while liberating his country or because you are Saddam Hussein just fooling around, he is equally dead. America had no better excuse than Hussein to kill Iraqis.
But Sharansky knows that as language expresses human thoughts, history expresses deeds -- which (like thoughts) are sometimes nonsense and sometimes meaningful. The collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, meant that innumerable freedom lovers had struggled and suffered and won.
Sharansky himself spent more than 10 years in Soviet prisons -- because he was a dissident, had worked with other dissidents and yearned to go to Israel. Nordlinger writes about Sharansky's imprisonment: "More than 400 of those days were spent in punishment cells; more than 200 were spent on hunger strikes. His refusal to concede anything to the Soviets was almost superhuman."
Sharansky was prepared to die for freedom. He saw fellow dissidents die. Don't tell him that all killing is the same, that history is going nowhere. He rode history's bucking bronco from a Soviet cell to a Jewish state that is strong enough (physically, spiritually) to fight off insatiable enemies in war after war and never surrender.
I don't know Allen's view of religion. But the idea that history repeats itself endlessly, that no utopian "end of days" will ever come, that existence is a grim, meaningless merry-go-round nicely compliments atheism. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called this view (which he also held) "the eternal recurrence." Nietzsche was the wisest atheist of all. But again, Sharansky disagrees. As a Soviet prisoner he invented a prayer: "Grant me the strength, the power, the intelligence and the patience to leave this jail and reach the land of Israel in an honest and worthy way." The prayer was granted. For Sharansky, his personal history means nothing less than that God is listening.
Is that meaning enough for Woody Allen?